Rev. Mr. Roger J. Landry
Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupensis, Rome
Friday of 2nd Week, Year I
Memorial of St. Vincent, Deacon
January 22, 1999
Heb 8:6-13; Mk 3:13-19;
The first reading from the Letter to the Hebrews gives us an astounding promise: that God will place his laws in our minds and write them upon our hearts, forgive our evil doing and remember our sins no more. He accomplishes this in two stages: first the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus; second, the ministry of the apostles and priests that the Gospel tells us “he himself” decides upon, who come and join him.
God places his laws in our minds and writes them on our hearts at birth. These are great gifts, but gifts that are in practice generally only activated through the graces we receive at baptism and through the other sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. The First Vatican Council, 130 years ago here in Rome, stated that we can know the existence of God through reason, but only with an admixture of error. Baptism, preached and administered by the apostles, their successors and coworkers, allows us to enter into the plenitude of this great promise, the promise of all the ages. The sacraments of the New Covenant allow us to experience them maximally.
So much we know from theology. But the events of the inauguration of the New Covenant that the Letter to the Hebrews describes really concern nothing less that the greatest event of all time: the New Covenant inaugurated on Calvary by Jesus’ blood. This truth is more than a some beautiful theological concept that may be useful at an Ange theological exam. It is ultimately the reason why all of us are here this morning. It is a truth worth living for and worth dying for.
This truth was not lost on St. Vincent. He was ordained a lowly deacon is Zaragosa Spain and his bishop, recognizing his zeal for Jesus, appointed him as a preacher at a time when almost exclusively bishops were the preachers in his diocese. He preached the Gospel with the truest speech he could muster, but preached it much more powerfully with his example and sufferings for the faith. The account of the extraordinary tortures he suffered is among the most reliable that have ever come down to us. I will recount them, briefly, so that each of us, in the midst of Jesus’ constant invitations to pick up our daily crosses and follow him, might need the encouragement of someone who followed the Lord straight to the end.
Under Diocletian, the emperor Dacian in Spain imprisoned most notable Christians, among who was St. Vincent. He starved them for weeks in prison, hoping the lingering torture would shake their constancy, but it didn’t work. He tried to threaten and bribe them into sacrificing to the pagan gods, but the Christians wouldn’t budge, no matter how much their pain. Finally, the bishop Valerius, who had a stuttering problem, asked Vincent to give the verbal defense for the Christians, saying, “As I committed to you the dispensation of the word of God, so I now charge you to answer in vindication of the faith which we hold.” The deacon then said the Christians were willing to suffer anything out of love of God and would never give in to torture or promises. That made the cruel, stony heart of Dacian even crueler. This is what the Roman court records recount for us. First they stretched Vincent on the rack by his hands and feet while his flesh was torn with iron hooks. The judge, seeing the blood which flowed from his body and the frightful condition to which it was reduced, confessed the courage of the young cleric. He then condemned him to what the records call the most cruel of tortures, burning him upon a gridiron. Vincent cheerfully mounted the gridiron, i8n which the bars were full of spikes made red-hot by the fire underneath. He was stretched at full length upon it and his wounds were rubbed with salt, which the fire forced deeper into his flesh. But the flames, rather than tormenting him, gave him new courage. The governor didn’t now what to do. He threw him into a filthy prison, where the broken potsherds and vermin attacked his ghastly wounds, and starved. Even that didn’t take Vincent’s eyes off the Lord. The gaoler was converted seeing Vincent’s joy. Eventually even Dacian relented and allowed Christian faithful to visit him. They dressed his wounds and made relics of his blood. Soon after he died.
St. Vincent is not some made-up character in some historical fable. He is a real human being that suffered these things out of love for the Lord, out of love for everything the Lord had given for him in laying down his life for Vincent and for us and for inviting all Christians to follow his lead. Vincent did. Now it’s our turn. And though less dramatic, in may ways, our crosses are harder than Vincent’s. Our Crosses are those daily ones that we’re so often tempted to run away from. Getting up on time. Turning the other cheek. Loving our enemies.
But we’re not left alone. We’re not left helpless. We have the perpetual sign of the New Covenant and the grace that it confers. United with St. Vincent and all the saints around the heavenly altar, we have chance literally to share in that Covenant making event, that gave Jesus strength, purpose and hope, that gave Vincent strength, purpose and hope, and that gives us purpose and hope. Behold, we will soon drink the blood of the New and Everlasting Covenant, which through our stomachs and intestines, enter the blood stream, renew our heart and ultimately cross the blood barrier into our minds. This is the blood shed for us and for all so that sins may be forgiven. How fortunate we are to have the chance today to do this in Jesus’ memory.